Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hayes: I cannot match my hon. Friend's eloquence, and I feel like Plato following Socrates. The great advantage of Socrates was that he never wrote anything down. I do not know whether that is true of my hon. Friend, but I feel like a pupil standing before the master.

Mr. Boswell: I shall not take my hon. Friend's analogy as offensive, but I may be able to help the Committee. I remind my hon. Friend of an exchange between our late and enjoyable colleague Derek Enright and me in the Standing Committee that considered the Education Bill in 1992, when that juxtaposition of Socrates and Plato arose. He was surprised that I laughed at his intervention, and I had to explain to the Committee that Socrates was my old dog and Plato was my current dog.

The Chairman: Order. I sincerely hope that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will not continue that discussion.

Mr. Hayes: No, Mr. O'Brien, I have no intention of going into detail about Athenian philosophers.

I want to emphasise two points that are pertinent to my hon. Friend's contribution. First, we know that the transition period in people's education is critical to their progress. I am thinking not only of people with special needs, but pupils and students generally. The most recent report of the Office for Standards in Education paid particular attention to the difficulties faced by students as they move from one institution to another, such as moving information between institutions, communications between them, and the shock of new social and cultural factors. That is particularly so for people with special educational needs.

Imagine children moving from the protective atmosphere of a special school into further education to pursue a course in a larger institution with a very different atmosphere and a larger range of characters and personalities than they have been used to. People who are particularly vulnerable will find the transition more challenging than will mainstream students, who also find it difficult We know that the transition is a problem and that it produces particular needs. Ofsted has suggested that there is a problem with the transition between primary and secondary education, and that it has an impact on children. We know that that is exaggerated for people with emotional and behavioural difficulties and other special needs, because Ofsted has told us so.

The second issue that I want to flesh out—I mentioned it in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry—is that superimposed on the problem of people moving from one institution to another is the possibility that their needs might change. It is worth re-emphasising that, although we tend to think of special needs as static, many are dynamic. They change as people develop and get older, and as the condition from which they suffer changes. That has a real impact on their abilities and disabilities, and their capacity to deal with change.

Some 10 per cent. of children have an illness that can cause acquired brain injury, and an enormous number of children and young people are treated for brain injury. Established evidence shows that communication between different agencies that deal with such children and young people—for example, the health service and education—is typically rather poor. We know from the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum, Headway and other agencies that complaints have arisen. The Minister has addressed the issue in the House, saying that the Government are aware of the problem and are looking at ways to improve co-ordination. However, we should remember that the problems are real.

Given that transition presents a particular problem in respect of special needs, and given the even greater difficulty for those with a dynamic special need, the least that we can do is to ensure that provision follows a continuum, and that the Bill enshrines an obligation for agencies involved in statutory and further education to communicate better. That would ensure good communication, because all the wisdom and knowledge gained during the early education of an individual would be transmitted to the further education institution.

Like many suggestions and proposals made during our deliberations, the new clause would add to the Bill and is in no way a negative or spoiling clause. In my judgment, it would strengthen Ministers in achieving what they claim to want to achieve. If it is not accepted, results are likely to remain variable.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I shall speak briefly. Having listened with interest to the platonic relationship between my Front-Bench colleagues, I hope to support them in an appropriate role, although my knowledge of Greek does not enable me to describe it exactly.

I am concerned about the Learning and Skills Council, to which reference has been made. Although I did not participate in the Standing Committee that considered the relevant legislation, I have corresponded with the director of education for my education authority, who was concerned to discover that responsibility for all post-16 provision will shift to the Learning and Skills Council in 2002. For that reason, the new clause might be of even greater importance, because it would protect the interests of children in such circumstances.

Mr. Boswell: A simple point that should be made clear. Regardless of how the legal labels or responsibilities change, there will still be a point at which responsibility will be passed on, and the new clause would ensure satisfaction in respect of the continuum that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings described.

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend has worded the new clause in such a way that it can envisage every eventuality.

Will the Minister explain how the Learning and Skills Council will cope with its new responsibility in respect of children with special educational needs? My local director of education in Surrey has expressed serious concerns about whether the new learning and skills councils will be up to speed in all their areas of responsibility. It is regrettable that, as a result of the transition from training and enterprise councils to learning and skills councils, many people who were involved in the sector and had a great deal of knowledge have decided to move on. There is always an argument for bringing in new blood and taking a fresh approach. However, those coming into the learning and skills councils are fresh to the field and, although they may bring with them valuable business experience and a wider view of what is required, they are on a very steep learning curve. That is especially true with regard to special educational needs. People may need more time to come up to speed, given that they will be responsible for all post-16 education in just a year's time.

Having been in correspondence not only with the director of education in Surrey, but with the leadership of our local college, I know that people fear that the LSCs are having difficulty in achieving the breadth of expertise that they will need in time to take on their new responsibilities. In that context, will the Minister explain how the Bill will protect the interests of those with special educational needs as they enter post-16 education, and say whether she agrees that the new clause would bolster their interests and give them the added protection that they need?

Ms Hodge: I am pleased that we are having this short debate about the difficult issue of transition. It is difficult to get it right in theory—although I believe that we have achieved that through the framework of the Bill—and even more difficult to convert that theory into practice. Having had long discussions with people with a wide range of disabilities, not least with learning difficulties and severe brain injuries, I know that transition is of great concern to them. They worry about whether services are properly planned, and whether they can take equipment across various institutions. The Government are constantly trying to address those concerns.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I sat here thinking about all those Greek analogies, we felt that it was all Greek to us and that we could not cope. We were then helped by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who said that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings ought to have said that he feels like Boswell following Dr. Johnson.

We believe that the Bill provides the appropriate legal cover to ensure that children, throughout their time at school and as they move into adulthood, are protected properly during the period of transition. Turning that into operational effectiveness is the key issue that we will all have to work on, and it would be absurd for us to promise in Committee today that everything will work smoothly, especially in the early days. As the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said, in establishing new institutions there are bound to be hiccups on the way until people have been properly trained in their new jobs and are used to them. However, the structure of the system is appropriate and has enough checks and balances to ensure the protection of individuals as children or as adults as they move through the educational system.

The Secretary of State always has the power to intervene if he believes that a school is not responding appropriately. That might apply in cases such as those to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred—for example, when it is necessary to determine whether a change in an individual's disability or condition has been properly assessed and responded to.

Disabled students' transition from school to further education and training should be appropriately catered for. That is why, under section 140 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, statemented pupils going on to post-16 education or training will be assessed during their last school year. That can also be arranged for other young people with special educational needs. The new Connexions service will be the agent for ensuring that such assessments take place.

We are developing a framework to support the Connexions service's personal advisers in their assessment and planning work with young people. We are also working with the post-16 disability consortium to ensure that it meets the needs of young people with learning difficulties and disabilities, about whom the whole Committee is concerned, and that the Secretary of State carries out the new responsibilities under section 140 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

We also expect the new learning and skills councils and the Connexions service's personal advisers to work closely with further education colleges and other providers, and with the young people, to ensure delivery on what is agreed as a result of the assessments. We aim to meet the needs of young people with learning difficulties, and to provide them with a smoother transition into post-16 provision. That is why the 2000 Act introduced changes to transition planning. It should take place from the time of the young person's first annual review of their statement after their 14th year, which, under the revised codes, will happen in year nine. The revised codes will contain strengthened guidance on transition planning, reflecting the establishment of the Connexions service.

9.45 am

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